Why Urban Design?

by Jaimie Ferguson, Urban Design Director

We live in an Urbanising world. In less than 50 years more than twice as many people will live in cities than do today. China and India are urbanising at a frantic rate whilst other developing/growing countries seek to improve and expand existing urban centres.

We are therefore faced with significant international opportunities either urban planning focussed or design projects with scale that demands an urbanist approach, particularly in the Middle East and China. The blurring of boundaries between architecture and urbanism in these ‘mega-projects’ is something we acknowledge and embrace. We see Urban Design playing a key role in this new wave of change.

The role of Urban Design
Urban Design reflects something of an age old process. As long as there have been cities people have attempted to ‘improve’ how they function and are structured and, by extension, how people live. We have an in-built urge to shape our own environment (at least in motive) for the better.

A Laissez Faire to city building has rarely proven to deliver successful places. Opponents to this view often counter that our favourite historic cities have been shaped through organic growth and change. Layered over time and within restricted space that is true but this is not the same as unfettered commercial development. We only get to see the ‘good bits’ that have been preserved or valued over time.

Urban Design is therefore concerned with setting out a shared set of ideals for how we should live, interact, and share precious space. In this way we hope to avoid the ‘bad bits’ of throwaway architecture or wasted investment before they happen.

What is good Urban Design?
Cities exist in a state of flux – Masterplans are rarely realised in full, rather they set the agenda for change. Urban Design therefore seeks to balance what is important to a society or community with the commercial pressures for development and attempts to set all change (from the individual building, through public spaces to area wide regeneration) within a wider physical and social context.

If you can ‘see’ the masterplan it has failed. Good Urban Design will, upon completion be totally invisible, replaced by good buildings, good open spaces, good streets. The masterplan must blend with its surroundings or to create a natural piece of city and an all encompassing place.

All credit will ultimately be claimed by Architects and Landscape Architects involved with a series of individual construction projects. Such is the lot of an Urban Designer – always the bridesmaid, never the bride!

The truth is good Urban Design is a coherent fusion of all built environment disciplines along a spectrum of influence from concept to implementation. It is messy and multi-disciplinary by its nature, aiming for the creation of new ‘places’, not just new development. As a result it requires in its practitioners flexibility and a contextually sensitive approach; seeking to enhance the built environment, transform the image of an area and help it to function more effectively.

The alchemy of Urban Design brings technical data, policy imperatives alongside community and client input to bear on a design challenge. It focuses on form and content.